If someone were to assemble a women's basketball team comprised of players on the Prince George's County-based D.C. Divas women's professional full-contact football team, it would likely be one of the best in the nation, Divas general manager Rich Daniel joked.
With their commanding 69-8 victory against the Columbus Comets Saturday, the Divas advanced to the Women's Football Alliance National Conference semifinals where they are scheduled to meet historic rival Boston Militia on July 5.
The majority of players on the D.C. team competing at the highest level of women's football in this country are recent — after college — converters from other sports. For example, Bowie native and wide receiver Ashley Whisonant is seventh on the University of Arizona women's basketball team's all-time scoring list with 1,451 points and is in a three-way tie for No. 1 in all-time free throws made.
“If the scale is 100, I would say of the women on our team who would say she's a football player [from childhood], that is 1 percent,” Daniel said.
The athleticism from other high-level sports — 12th-year Divas quarterback and Eleanor Roosevelt High School graduate Allyson Hamlin played Division I softball at the University of Maryland, College Park — translates onto the gridiron. It takes a hodgepodge of athletes of all different shapes, sizes and different skill sets to create a top football team. And it's the perfect place, Daniel and Hamlin agreed, for elite-level athletes who have completed their collegiate — or maybe even professional — careers to feed their appetite for competition.
Of course, had the opportunity to play football in high school and college been there for these women rather than the stigma that football is not a sport for females, they all might have been football-first athletes from the beginning. Perhaps the players in the competitive 42-team WFA, which was formed in 2009 after a decade of a revolving door of leagues, would be getting paid to play rather than paying a fee to train and compete at a national level. Instead, amazingly, these devoted athletes have to balance that schedule with full-time careers.
“The NFL back in the '30s and '40s, everyone had jobs and people weren't get paid much, if anything, to get going. It took a long time to merge things,” Daniel said. “Then television picked up in the '60s and '70s and now it's this incredible multi-billion dollar enterprise where it had to grow, so we're doing the same thing. We just started our second decade.”
One major step has been the acceptance of women's football under the USA Football — the sport's national governing body — umbrella, Daniel said. There are opportunities for women to represent the United States on the football field at an international level — Team USA won world championship gold in 2010 and 2013.
One step toward creating more visibility and popularity for the sport is getting flag football, for both boys and girls, into the school systems, Hamlin said. Girls' flag football is now being contested as a varsity sport with state championships in four states — Alaska, Florida, New York, Nevada — plus the District of Columbia. Louisiana and Texas are on the horizon, said Samantha Rapoport, USA Football's director of football development.
Rapoport has been instrumental in that process. In 2007, while working at the NFL, she launched the NFL Girls Flag Football Leadership Program in which female athletes were given the means to present the idea of implementing flag football as a varsity sport to their high school athletic directors. That first year, 20,000 girls were introduced to the sport. Now there are nearly 40,000 female student-athletes playing varsity flag football.
With its rapid growth, Rapoport said the next step is to push for women's football on the NCAA's emerging sports list. While women's football is being contested at a high level as an intramural sport, as it stands, the opportunity, or lack thereof, to earn college scholarships is a major obstacle at this point.
Television exposure would also be vital to the sport's growth, Rapoport said, as it's hard for one to become a fan of something, especially to change someone's pre-existing attitude about something, without a visual.
“We have some incredible athletes on our team, a lot of us played a sport in college, but the game of football, there's a major learning curve,” Hamlin said. “I probably wasn't comfortable until year four or five and even now I feel like I'm still learning. We want to be on a team and win championships and to do that, you have to know the game.”